Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left) and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asked GAO to look into the backlog.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left) and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asked GAO to look into the backlog. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Committee Seeks Investigation Into OPM’s Slower Retirement Claims Processing

Lawmakers look to ensure efficient and timely process for federal retirees.

This story has been updated

A bipartisan group of lawmakers with oversight of the federal workforce has tasked government auditors with investigating whether the retirement process is operating as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

In a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the respective chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the Government Accountability Office to study “the steps that both [the Office of Personnel Management] and the human resources offices at various agencies can take to ensure the timely processing of a retirement claim.” The retirement processing backlog has plagued OPM for decades, frustrating both members of Congress and federal retirees.

Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the chairman and ranking member of the oversight panel’s Government Operations Subcommittee, also signed the letter.

The lawmakers asked GAO to research whether OPM’s existing guidance is clear on how agencies should save employee information to expedite the claims process, to what extent agencies are complying with that guidance and why agencies have “high rates of error” in retirement processing. They also solicited recommendations from GAO for what Congress, as well as OPM, other agencies and feds themselves, can do to reduce retirement claim processing time.

The retirement claims backlog stood at 15,146 through September, down from 60,000 in January 2012. OPM originally attempted to eliminate the backlog by the summer of 2013, but sequestration forced the agency to scale back its ambitions.

Ken Zawodny, OPM associate director of retirement services, has said that OPM will never fully eliminate the backlog because there will always be cases that take time to process. Many cases that take more than 60 days to complete are delayed because the agency needs more information from retirees, according to OPM. The oversight committee members noted the percentage of claims processed within that timeframe has dropped since March, falling to a low point of 64 percent last month.

Two years ago, OPM processed 83 percent of retirement claims within 60 days. It had previously set the goal of processing 90 percent of claims within that window.

OPM spokesman Sam Schumach said the agency is looking "forward to working with GAO to identify ways to improve." He noted OPM was meeting its goal of processing 90 percent of claims within 60 days earlier in fiscal 2016, but the typical peaks in volume in January and July have set it back. 

Modernization efforts have gone through many iterations over the years, with several notable failed attempts. Congress provided resources for OPM to develop a retirement case management system in 2014. OPM awarded a contract late last year to implement that system. Still, OPM said in June it would be starting “almost from scratch” in an effort to digitize the process.

“While OPM continues to study how best to modernize retirement processing,” the lawmakers wrote, “it is critical that OPM ensure the current paper processing system is efficiently meeting the needs of retiring federal workers.”

They said the committee’s preliminary investigation showed “a particularly high rate of error” at the departments of Veterans Affairs, Interior and Agriculture, as well as the Social Security Administration.